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The Woman Who Runs with the Wolves
Perri Knize
October 18, 1993
Biologist Diane Boyd has spent 14 years studying the animals in the far reaches of the Rockies
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October 18, 1993

The Woman Who Runs With The Wolves

Biologist Diane Boyd has spent 14 years studying the animals in the far reaches of the Rockies

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The first few times I don't meet Diane Boyd, I become convinced she must be every inch the misanthrope that she is reputed to be. In the 56 days it took me to track down the held biologist, who is documenting the return of the wolf to the northern Rocky Mountains for the University of Montana's Wolf Ecology Project, I found phone calls and letters to be useless. Tips from her acquaintances and associates led to dead ends. Vague plans to meet were scrapped abruptly and without warning when she suddenly disappeared. "This is Diane. Don't come up. I won't be available" became a mantra my answering machine intoned almost every time I checked in. The woman was as elusive and difficult as the subjects of her research. "Finding Diane Boyd is a project unto itself," Jim Cole, a local cougar tracker warned me. "Sometimes the only way is to just go up there and find her."

So I am lying in wait—as a field biologist might—for my subject to appear in one of her haunts, the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge, Mont., a chuck-hole-sized town beside the North Fork of the Flathead River, 20 miles south of the Canadian border, 30 miles north of any paved roads. It's hot in the saloon on this late June day, and I'm sucking on a lukewarm beer after a five-hour drive from Missoula. My mission: to get an interview with the woman who runs with wolves.

The beer is warm because the North Fork, as the valley is called, lacks such amenities as electricity and running water. A handful of loners live here in log cabins. The locals use CBs instead of telephones and power their radios with car batteries, the sun or the occasional generator. It's the kind of place people go to when they want to be far from the modern world. It's also a place that is so wild that wolves live there.

The wolves are what brought Boyd, who was then 24 and had a degree in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota, to the North Fork in 1979. Locals had begun reporting sightings of the animals after an absence of 50 years. Wolves were once common in the northern Rockies, but after the first settlers killed off the wolves' prey—bison, deer and elk—the wolves turned to livestock for food. Enraged ranchers then killed off the wolves; more than 80,000 wolves were turned in for bounties in Montana alone between 1890 and 1930.

In 1973 federal officials listed the wolf as an endangered species. At about that time Bob Ream, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana, started the Wolf Ecology Project to document the anticipated return of the wolf to the northern Rockies. A few wolves had begun to venture south from Canada, along the Continental Divide, and Ream needed experienced trappers to put radio collars on the wolves and track them. That was when he hired Boyd, who had worked for Ream's old mentor at the University of Minnesota, wolf guru David Mech, on his research projects in Minnesota and the Arctic.

That fall Boyd, beginning work on her master's degree from the University of Montana, came to live in a drafty and decrepit log cabin in Moose City on the Flathead River. For the next 12 years she would live alone, without running water or electricity or road access during the winter.

Moose City proved to be an ideal base for Boyd's work. Wolves occasionally trotted through her yard, sometimes inviting her dogs to play. That first year the project caught a lone female wolf and tracked it for two years. Then funding for the Wolf Ecology Project evaporated, and in 1981 Boyd was out of a job.

But she was so in love with the North Fork and her wolves that she stayed on with no pay, earning money by clearing brush, working as a fire lookout and selling her wildlife paintings. When the first litter of wolf pups was born, in 1982, Boyd drove 57 miles to the Forest Service district office in Columbia Falls and borrowed a trail bike for the summer so she could track the mother and her pups.

Today there are about 50 wolves in four packs thriving in the North Fork Study Area, some 1,000 square miles spanning the Canadian border in and just west of Glacier National Park. Twenty-three litters of pups have been born there since 1982; many of them have dispersed to ranges as far as 550 miles away. Money for the project, which received additional funding in 1984, now goes to a study of wolves' relationship with their prey. The data Boyd and other researchers are collecting will reveal the potential impact of the recovery of the wolf population on big game.

In Boyd, Ream says, he has found an ace natural-history detective. "Diane can look at a dead animal and tell if a wolf killed it and how the kill was made," he says. Part of her expertise was acquired working in the backcountry. Much of her work there is dangerous, such as crossing the Flathead River in hip boots in-20° weather or confronting a grizzly bear feeding on a wolf kill. Her phenomenal self-reliance and courage, say those who know Boyd, color every aspect of her personality. "She's a wild woman," says Ream. "You have to hold the reins."

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